Splitsider

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

The Least Alienating Political Comedian, Unless You're the Current Italian Government

Parma, Italy: the birthplace of Parmesan cheese and the modern Italian’s “Stalingrad.” For those of you non-history buffs, Stalingrad was a bloody, drawn-out battle in which the Soviets ultimately staved off the Nazi army leading to a turning point in World War II. To those of you actual history buffs, I apologize for my utterly reductive explanation of this historic battle. This name was more recently evoked by one of Italy’s most famous comedians, Beppe Grillo, in reference to a rather landmark mayoral elections in Parma, Italy. While the European economy may be headed for — pardon my French — the shitter, many citizens in the EU are rather non-plussed about the austerity measures proposed by Merkel & co, formerly of the Merkel & Sarkozy & co alliance, as well as their governments that are going along with the measures.

One such group rejecting their current regime and beating the drum of hyper-democracy is an Italian organization known as the Five Star Movement. Led by the comedian Grillo, whose career has spanned nearly four decades, the movement recently achieved its first victory with the election of its candidate Federico Pizzarotti as mayor of Parma. This happened a little over a week ago, yet is already causing an international ripple.

Unlike other comedians-cum-politicians, such as Jon Gnarr in Iceland, Beppe Grillo’s “movement” is no joke, even though he has a fiercely anti-political message both in his comedy and in his “politics.” He’s also not content to rest on the laurels of one mayoral victory. In his same statement to the New York Times regarding their election’s Stalingrad equivalency, he explained the next step was to “Take Berlin,” as in take down the current national government in Italy. According to the same article, the Five Star Movement plans to do so on their “environmentally friendly, anti-consumerist, pro-education platform, articulated with plenty of local variations” where “community chapters decide which issues they want to emphasize and then elect a ‘spokesperson’ to represent the ideas in the elections.”

Reuters nicknamed him the Italian Michael Moore, but unlike Moore, Grillo seems much more unifying than polarizing. With 18 percent of the population supporting the Five Star Movement, and nearly half considering throwing their support behind it, Grillo’s grassroots project has become the second most popular party in Italy. He believes so much in the power of the web, that Movement candidates are forbidden to appear on TV for their campaigns. This isn’t just a radical plan, the man has major World Wide Web “traction,” as they say in the biz. With 875,000 Likes on Facebook and more than 577,000 followers on Twitter — a significant growth since the Times article was published over two weeks ago — Grillo has the kind of social media reach that makes the heads of marketers and advertisers explode. He is anti-consumerism, after all.

Grillo’s Five Star Movement found its first breaths in 2005 on Grillo’s popular blog, aptly titled “Beppe Grillo’s Blog.” Words like “of the top 20 most trafficked blogs in the world” have been thrown around online, and his site was an official honoree of the 14th Annual Webby Awards. His blog is currently available in Italian, English, and Japanese versions and is almost entirely dedicated to his current project for total upheaval of political greed and scumbaggery in Italy.  And if you speak Italian fluently, you can also check out his YouTube channel, currently clocking in at more than 94, 500,000 total views. Those are some Barack Obama ‘Yes We Can’ stats.

Speaking of 2008, the Parma victory was not the first time Grillo gained international attention for his war on politics. The New Yorker, beating Reuters to the whole Michael Moore punch, profiled him in 2008 in the wake of a fall 2007 V-Day celebration he created for Italy that saw more than two million participants nationwide. For this “national holiday,” the V stood less for victory than for vendetta, and most importantly for “Vaffanculo!” Which, to put it lightly, means “fuck off.” Along with his movement’s more positive “V” in the past few weeks, many articles have revisited the fact that Beppe Grillo himself has not entered the race. This is due to an incident in the 80’s, which left Grillo convicted of manslaughter and unable to ever run for office himself. Most reporters allude to the incident, but the New Yorker profile explains it a bit more in-depth, along with a fairly comprehensive origin story on the comedian who is fast becoming a folk hero in Italy.

Back in 2008, Al Jazeera also commissioned a documentary from Banyak Films about the great comedian entitled “The Beppe Grillo Story.” Here’s the trailer for it:

He found early success with television variety shows in the late 70’s, such as Secondo Voi and Fantastico, then later in the 80’s with humorous travel doc shows about his adventures in the United States and Brazil. His humor took a turn for the political by the time the 90’s rolled around, but while this may have removed him from the good graces of the government, the general Italian population only revered him all the more.

For someone so unanimously accepted as Italy’s most famous comedian, he has only appeared in three feature films over his nearly forty-year career and a handful of television comedy shows. His stand-up shows, books and DVDs almost singlehandedly fund all Movement political campaigns, yet I could find relatively little of his live comedy work online. Not even without English subtitles. The numbers of his online presence don’t lie, but there is still an air of mystery that shrouds the politician comedian whose stage presence has been called bear-like and riddled with profanity. To understand the secret to his continual success, all while being unapologetically outspoken and abrasive, is to harness the true power of comedy. (I’ve been watching too many summer blockbusters) Maybe the only way to “Take Berlin” these days is with laughter.

But for the moment, I am left to speculate about his comedic styling because I don’t really understand Italian. Perhaps that’s the Internet’s way of telling me to Vaffanculo until I do. Classic Grillo.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

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  • italophile

    Just a note: his absence from tv is a censorship issue.  Everytime he appeared on tv in Italy he alienated politicians who had direct power in broadcasting (this was until recently Berlusconi's Italy after all), and was banned from reappearing.